What if Marcos Won?
And more what-ifs.
We have lived with EDSA stories for so long we tend to fail to pause, and think: “What if?” What if certain things did not unfold as they did? EDSA was the result of snap decisions made by millions of people, as they confronted a chaotic situation. To my mind there were 10 instances when Marcos could have retrieved the situation: three of them prior to February 1986, and seven during the EDSA Revolution itself.
The first was Marcos’ decision to call for a snap election, which he announced—against the advice of his family and closest advisers—on David Brinkley’s show in November 1985. He’d been under siege for three years by an opposition united in the wake of Ninoy Aquino’s murder. He was already suspicious of Fidel V. Ramos and Juan Ponce Enrile, the economy had tanked, and he’d been very sick, having had kidney transplants in 1983 and 1984. Yet he had maintained an overwhelming majority in the Batasan elections the previous year, and his term of office was only due to expire on June 30, 1987. So when the Americans suggested in October to Marcos that he hold a snap election, he could have said no; but he said yes.
Marcos had once said Filipinos will “accept any kind of radical reform provided it is constitutional and legal.” A steady stream of decrees, orders, plebiscites, and government reorganizations from 1972 onwards emphasized he was the law and possessed legitimacy. He could brush off criticism as envious nit-picking. Holding a snap election required political maneuverings in the Batasan to allow it, which irritated the more self-respecting among his allies; it also handed his opponents an opportunity for a showdown on a silver platter.
As Guy Sacerdoti once put it, “Desperate to retain the draconian powers he once had, Marcos was forcing the ‘silent majority’ he thought backed him to choose sides. Businessmen, priests, the usually conservative church hierarchy and even the comfortable middle class were slowly realizing that the more radical way was the only way.” After all, Marcos could have given everyone a breather, but here he was, suddenly insisting on a showdown. Anyone hoping Marcos would be too sick, old, or mellow to go past 1987 suddenly had to consider six more years of Marcos if he won.
Forcing people to choose meant people looked beyond their political leadership to determine which side to take. With the Catholic bishops’ proclamation that a government that resorted to fraud had lost its moral legitimacy, Marcos lost what the Chinese call “the mandate of Heaven,” which erased the value of Marcosian legalism. What if Marcos hadn’t called for a snap election? He might have had different options a year down the road. His snap decision to call a snap election also came with what he thought was a snappy response to suggestions he intended to rig the results: “You’re all invited to come,” he told Brinkley’s show, and said the U.S. Congress could send observers, too. This guaranteed that Ronald Reagan’s inclination to support Marcos would be challenged by senators, congressmen, and diplomats.
The second “what if” was the acquittal of Gen. Fabian Ver on December 2, 1985, and reinstating him as AFP Chief of Staff on February 16, 1986, which further polarized the military, including the Vice Chief of Staff, Fidel V. Ramos. Did he have a choice? Probably not, whether in terms of pure loyalty or ruthlessness. Marcos needed Ver; he needed him declared innocent and he needed him back in charge of the AFP. Still, in the end, the comeback of Ver made it easier for Ramos to split away, with Ramos proving the better commander.
The third “what if” is if Cardinal Sin had failed to unite the opposition: Doy Laurel and Eva Estrada Kalaw would have continued their candidacy, possessing the bulk of the opposition machinery. Cory Aquino might have opted to stay in, armed with the 1.5 million signatures collected by Chino Roces. But both she and Cardinal Sin would likely have been weakened, affecting their ability to influence events, not to mention that a continuing split in the opposition might have salvaged the situation for National Democratic Front, validating the communist’s belief that it was better to boycott the snap elections.
The fourth was the decision of the Commission on Elections to recognize the National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections, forgetting the experience of its chairman, Jaime Ferrer, in the landslide win of Magsaysay in 1957 which neutralized the government’s machinery at the time. The organization put up a national network that could rival the Commission on Election’s (COMELEC), which alone had called the shots up to that point. Combined with Marcos’s self-confident invitation to election observers from abroad, it made it practically impossible to frame election protests as sour-graping on the part of the opposition, which had been how the COMELEC handled things prior to 1986.
The fifth was the decision to detain the bodyguards of Minister Roberto Ongpin, which tipped off the Reform the Armed Forces Movement that Ver knew something was afoot. Through his son, Col. Irwin Ver, the AFP chief had discovered a coup attempt was scheduled, and they learned the details of the plan. They had an exciting scenario to respond to it: They would allow the attack to proceed, but as Gringo Honasan and friends zoomed up the Pasig River to attack the Palace, Bongbong Marcos would dazzle them with floodlights, and tell them to surrender. Then loyal soldiers hidden in the Palace would pop out and it would be game over for Gringo.
Instead, Ongpin panicked, called Marcos, called Enrile, who called Ramos, and so on. Combined with the ocular inspection Gringo Honasan and friends made around Malacañan (at which point they realized Ver was reinforcing the places that the Reform the Armed Forces Movement [RAM] was planning to use as entry points to the Palace), it destroyed the advantage Gen. Ver had enjoyed up to that point—that of surprise. Catching Honasan in the act of attempting a coup—then rounding up the leaders, would have handed a colossal propaganda victory, which could have rallied the military and police, put the opposition on the defensive, solidified American official opinion, and that of public opinion, too: because the only thing possibly worse than continuing Marcos’s rule would be to transfer power to an even more ruthless junta.
The sixth “what if” was Jaime Cardinal Sin calling on the public to protect the putschists who’d holed up in Camps Aguinaldo and Crame. What if Sin lost his nerve, or people didn’t heed his call? What if Butz Aquino went, and no one followed? What if other bishops lost their nerve or broke ranks? Some accounts have it that the Papal Nuncio conveyed Rome’s opposition to Cardinal Sin weighing in on the unfolding crisis, but was ignored. Marcos loyalists in the hierarchy were intimidated into silence as a result.
If Cardinal Sin hadn’t acted quickly, if he’d dilly-dallied on making his call, the government could have moved in and isolated the two camps. If the Cardinal lost his nerve or failed to convince people, then Cory Aquino’s decision to throw her support behind the trapped coup plotters might not have happened.
The seventh “what if” involves Fabian Ver’s military incompetence in surrounding the Palace with troops so that, when they were ordered to go forth and disperse the people at EDSA, a giant traffic jam resulted, delaying troop movements, with reinforcements arriving adding to the traffic snarl created by troops trying to move out.
The eighth was the disobedience of Gen. Prospero Olivas on February 22, the defection of choppers and the Navy to the rebels, and the unwillingness of the Marines to plow through the people on EDSA on February 24, and Col. Braulio Balbas’ repeated refusal to fire his artillery at Camp Crame despite repeated orders from Gen. Josephus Ramas, and the air force’s refusal to bomb Camp Crame, attacking Malacañan instead.
Marcos himself called Gen. Olivas five times on the 22nd, ordering him to disperse people gathering outside Camp Aguinaldo. After he was disobeyed the first, second, or even third time, he or Ver could have dismissed Olivas and found an obedient general. The foot-dragging resulted in the initiative passing to the rebels as more and more people showed up outside the military camps and one by one, entire units changed sides, crucially including the Air Force and Navy. By February 24, helicopter gunships landed in Aguinaldo to join the rebels instead of attacking them.
And the tenth “what if” was the loss of control over mass media. The first blow had been the rise of the “mosquito press,” which meant people were reading any paper except the crony-owned. The Catholic Church maintaining its own radio station meant control over the airwaves was never total to begin with. The control of TV was lost. Angry that Channel 4 had announced he’d fled the country, Marcos declared a state of emergency and then a curfew nationwide on evening of February 24: but by then, the strongman was reduced to looking impotent, issuing proclamations to a public that neither feared nor obeyed him anymore.
Whether due to being dulled by disease, or simply due to having to deal with too many events unfolding at the same time, Marcos had ordered Radio Veritas taken off the air only on the 23rd, when the crucial call by Cardinal Sin for the public to save the failed putschists had already been made. And even when Veritas was attacked, by the 24th, Radyo Bandido was broadcasting from a building along Magsaysay Boulevard practically overlooking the Palace. Marcos was increasingly off the air, or having to share air time with the Filipino people, who found bravery contagious.
So in the end, abandoned, fearful, and in adult diapers, the Great Dictator tried to bargain his way to Ilocos but instead ended up listening to his wife nervously singing “New York, New York” as they made their flight into exile in Hawaii.
During those feverish hours, he must have replayed, over and over, the moments when things might have gone otherwise for him.
What if, indeed. If Marcos had won in February 1986, there would have been a reckoning. Whether we believe he tried—and failed—to proclaim Martial Law in the closing days of his regime, or that an actual plan to round up and imprison opposition figures in Carballo Island in Manila Bay are true or not, flush with victory, neither Marcos nor his allies would have been kind.
We also often forget that after the fraudulent results of the snap election became known on February 15, 1986, the opposition launched a boycott of crony corporations the next day. The day after that, crony banks were experiencing massive withdrawals of deposits, crony papers were losing advertising, food and beverage product sales plunged (as did the Philippine Peso). The day after that, Ver discovered RAM’s coup plot. By February 20, the United States had announced all foreign aid to the Philippines would cease while Marcos remained president, while 15 foreign ambassadors publicly signaled their country’s attitudes by paying a visit on Cory Aquino. RAM decided it had better go ahead with its coup on February 23.
Even if Marcos had crushed the RAM coup attempt, and there had never been an EDSA, there was still the massive campaign of civil disobedience that had been launched, which is why Cory Aquino was in Cebu when Enrile and Ramos holed up in Camps Crame an Aguinaldo. How that might have unfolded, is another big “what if.”